Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age

“What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?” This apparently simple question opens into the massive, provocative, and complex A Secular Age, the latest book from philosopher Charles Taylor. Published by Harvard University Press in late 2007, A Secular Age became the occasion for The Immanent Frame’s first discussion series, with initial contributions from Robert Bellah, Wendy Brown, Talal Asad, and many others (including Charles Taylor himself).

The discussion continues with critical responses to Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2010), edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun.

 

February 9th, 2009

Embedded religion in Asia

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<br />The secularity of modern Asian states has by no means led to widespread social secularity, Taylor’s second secularity, a decline of religious belief and practice among ordinary people. The degree of religious practice varies from country to country, but almost everywhere temples, mosques, churches, and shrines are ubiquitous and full of people, especially during festival seasons. Even in China, where the government actively propagates an atheist ideology and has severely restricted open religious activities, it has been estimated that as much as ninety-five percent of the population engages from time to time in some form of religious practice.  Moreover, throughout Asia there have been impressive revivals and reformations of Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian religious beliefs and practices—Asia is religiously dynamic.

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February 5th, 2009

Discerning the religious spirit of secular states in Asia

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<br />In his monumental book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor distinguishes three meanings of secularism, as it refers to the “North Atlantic societies” of Western Europe and North America. Can this analytic framework be applied outside of the North Atlantic world, particularly to Asian societies?  Taylor himself would not claim to have created a framework for a universal theory of comparative religion. But this framework, grounded in a particular cultural and historical experience, may nonetheless be useful for cross cultural comparisons.

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December 23rd, 2008

Akbar Ganji in conversation with Charles Taylor

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<br />Charles Taylor: If the human relation to religion and to God is not as shallow as the mainstream theory thinks, then what would happen in many cases is religion would be recomposed in new forms that meet the new situation. And that is in fact what I would argue has happened in the West. So this is a much more adequate theory to understand this historical and sociological reality, but what it required is a deep understanding of the place of religion in human life. So I would claim that there’s a single discourse and it’s made up of elements that look as though they are drawn from three disciplines, but in fact they cohere together as a single discourse. The three discourses would be philosophy, history and sociology. You can’t do sociology without history, history without sociology, and you can’t do either without a proper philosophical understanding of human motivation. So the whole thing hangs together from those three sources. […]

Read Akbar Ganji in conversation with Charles Taylor.
December 22nd, 2008

Heraclitean spirituality: divine conflict

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<br />From the vertiginous summit of his virtue, and against all evidence to the contrary, Heraclitus informs us that “it is wise, listening not to me but to the logos, to agree that all things are one.” Thus, with far greater subtlety than his ancient Stoic heirs, and long before his greatest modern disciple, Nietzsche, Heraclitus enjoins an affirmation of the whole world. But many aspects of this world are hard to affirm—conflict, suffering, death—and he does not ignore them, nor does he dismiss them with the sort of pat theodicy that has given other immanent spiritualities a deserved reputation for insensitivity. Instead, he makes them integral to his paradoxical worldview. […]

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December 21st, 2008

Heraclitean spirituality: ephemeral selves

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<br />“That it cannot break time and time’s greed—that is the will’s loneliest misery.” Thus spoke Zarathustra. To try to escape this misery, according to him and his ventriloquist, Nietzsche, the will can travel one of two roads: it can fashion an eternity, with the promise of a redemption there, outside of time; or it can reconcile itself to this greed, somehow working through it, seeking a redemption here, in the midst of time. The first road is that of transcendence; the second, of immanence. When we decide for ourselves which road to travel—not only in grand moments of crisis and conversion, but also in humble moments every day of our lives—we implicitly answer the paramount question of our losing battle with time: how shall we overcome this, the will’s loneliest misery? […]

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December 20th, 2008

Naive and reflective faiths

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<br />It was difficult all along to conceive of religion (its ritual practices, mystical unions, or attractions and immersions of any other kind) without at the same time postulating or affirming a distancing—reflective or speculative, in case hypothetico-skeptical—stance vis-à-vis the world and life-world in all its worldly aspects. Religion, throughout the text of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, meant “engagement” and “disengagement” in theoretical, practical, and, more broadly, existential matters at once. To the very heart of religious belief there belongs not only an affirmation, but also a suspension of belief in the cosmic, social, or subjective matrices and fabrics of which we are made up. Our being-in-the world, qua believers, is, after all, if not exactly other-worldly, not-quite-of-or-out-of-this-world. […]

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December 19th, 2008

The “option” of unbelief

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<br />Charles Taylor suggests in A Secular Age that the “default option” in modernity is “unbelief” or “exclusivist humanism,” both of which make up the major positions or viewpoints that the secular “immanent frame”—both in its open and closed or “spun” variety—solicits and fosters. But this seemingly unproblematic observation merits further scrutiny. […]

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October 31st, 2008

Immanent spirituality

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<p></p>A worthy touchstone to arbitrate between worldviews immanent and transcendent is the désir d’éternité, the “desire to gather together the scattered moments of meaning into some kind of whole.” According to Charles Taylor, who adduces this touchstone, only transcendence has a satisfactory response to its longing: personal immortality. What response, if any, remains for immanence? Must it invent comic masks to hide the frown of an indifferent world? Must it surrender everything to the river of a senseless time? Must it be mute before the anguish of the bereaved? […]

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September 22nd, 2008

The ruse of “secular humanism”

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Discussions of the secular can often be peculiarly remote.  Whenever secularism is imagined as unbelief, or political neutrality, or an empty social space to be filled up with religious pluralism, it can be difficult to remember how it can also serve as a framework of corporeal experience and struggle.  We are used to associating corporeal discipline and affect with religion, but not with the secular.  So it might be excusable to begin with some personal reflection, not for the sake of autobiography but in order to tether analysis in some awareness of how the problem comes to have stakes. […]

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September 2nd, 2008

Buffered and porous selves

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A Secular AgeAlmost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed. […]

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August 13th, 2008

Psychoanalysis as spirituality

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What are our moral and spiritual sources? In his magnificent and magnanimous recent book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor investigates a wide range of modern worldviews that are “sources of fullness,” worldviews that enrich our lives with meaning, arrange our activities to serve higher goals, and thus motivate us at times to act beyond our narrow interests. They are, to borrow from the title of his earlier work, sources of the self. More precisely, they are sources of our highest self. As such, psychoanalysis should be among them. […]

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April 30th, 2008

Varieties of anti-religious imagination

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The publication of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has fostered an exceptionally vibrant intellectual debate on secularism and on the conditions of belief under modernity, as the readers of this blog very well know. For the social sciences at least, this fundamental rethinking on secularism inspired by Taylor’s work could not be any timelier: the stand-off between classical secularization theorists and the proponents of the religious economies model, which has continued for about two decades is only recently giving way to new paths of investigation. Precisely because this debate offers such a crucial opportunity, I want to point out what I see as two important points of neglect in this burgeoning discussion.

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April 17th, 2008

Belief, spirituality and time

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Charles Taylor, in his magisterial book on the Secular, periodically engages a constituency he calls immanent materialists. I would like to pursue that discussion, focusing on a subgroup within it, to see how its devotees and those Taylor identifies with most might interact in noble ways. […]

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March 8th, 2008

Varieties of secularism in a secular age

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On April 4-5, the SSRC will co-sponsor a conference at Yale University on Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age. The conference aims to enrich the debate fostered by the publication of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and will bring together prominent philosophers, political theorists, historians, social scientists, theologians and literary scholars who will from a variety of perspectives reflect on the question: what does it mean to live in a secular age? […]

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January 30th, 2008

The burden of the great divide

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secular_age.jpgWith the prevalence of voices casting doubts and aspersions on the so-called secularization thesis, we might imagine that the familiar story of the progress of Western modernity qua secularity is on its last legs, and that the notion of secularity itself is near bankruptcy. Upon closer inspection, however—and Charles Taylor’s latest tome provides an excellent occasion for such inspection—it appears that what is in jeopardy is the valence of “the secular,” and not the story of the long march of Western modernity itself. […]

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January 28th, 2008

Going beyond

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One of the main arguments of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age is that people, at least modern secular Westerners, have come routinely to think that the world as it is must be all there is. The contrast between immanence and transcendence is thus one of Taylor’s main organizing themes. Immanence locates both our sense of reality and our sense of the good within the world around us; transcendence gives us a sense of something beyond. Taylor develops this in conjunction with a notion of “fullness” to try to evoke what it means to live in more constant engagement with that which is beyond the immediately given, the spiritual which might infuse nature, for example, or the Divine which might lift morality above a notion of ethics as mere fairness. […]

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January 19th, 2008

A case of heteronomous thinking

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As a story, A Secular Age rivals Hans Blumenberg’s The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (which curiously it ignores) and does indeed belong to the largely neglected genre of speculative history. No doubt, it is a work of a lifetime’s worth of erudition – about this there can be no argument – but the easiest thing one can do is to praise it. The best and most profound of what it has to offer is precisely that the domains of thought and history it privileges be interrogated in order to stand as departure points for further thinking. This interrogation and evaluation cannot stay simply at the level of the story, but must extend to what authorizes the story, Charles Taylor’s (conscious or unconscious, explicit or implicit) politics. […]

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January 14th, 2008

Framing the middle

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secular_age.jpgFrom the opening pages, my historical antennae quickly began to quiver. Taylor’s book works in a space far removed from what I understand (speaking perhaps parochially) as proper historical argument. I say this with due caution: Taylor has always believed in the importance of a historical setting for his arguments. And from the outset of A Secular Age, he specifically addresses the issue of history. “Who needs all this detail, this history?” he asks, to insist that indeed “our past is sedimented in our present.”

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